“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” ~ American Indian proverb.

"With all things and in all things, we are relatives." ~ Lakota (Sioux) saying.

“If you know that things are bound to happen whatever you do, then you may feel free to give up the fight against them.” ~ Karl Popper

9 April 2014

One Nation Quotas: uniting by division?

It is a question often asked in Labour circles: what does 'One Nation Labour' actually mean?

If you thought it was an attempt to bring people together and re-establish forms of common life and citizenship, it may be time to think again, for Labour’s interest group politics has muscled in – right on cue.

Over the last weekend, plans emerged for what is termed a ‘One Nation Civil Service’, to be outlined in the next Labour election manifesto. These plans will see quotas for the elite Fast Stream programme, of 18 per cent black and ethnic minority, and 24 per cent ‘working-class’, plus further positive action for women.

Justifying these moves in a speech to the IPPR think tank (a speech that pulled back from the quota numbers mentioned in the Independent over the weekend), Ed Miliband’s right-hand man Michael Dugher outlined how ethnic minority numbers in the civil service have declined 10 per cent during the current government (though neglecting to mention that the overall number of civil servants has declined too). He added that women in senior positions have declined from 43 per cent in 2010 when Labour left office to 39 per cent last year.

He concluded: “This shows that the civil service is a ‘closed shop’ to many who already feel that government is distant and remote from their lives.”

Now, maybe I have gone stark raving bonkers, but this seems to me a flagrant, obvious and extreme misrepresentation of the stats – especially on women. Whether 39 or 43 per cent, the proportion of women in senior civil service positions doesn’t suggest that is some sort of male closed shop – far from it.

Nevertheless, this is the furrow that Labour and its dominant tribes relentlessly plough with their somewhat Orwellian ‘equalities agenda’; always picking statistics selectively (in this case absurdly), while ignoring how the numbers come about. And how the numbers come about includes the choices that people make in their lives – something those pressing this agenda either ignore or put down to false consciousness derived from structural oppression.

It is right to focus on discrimination by race or gender or other things, but it is evidence of negative discriminatory practice that we should be focusing on– not picking on a few statistics and claiming they prove the whole world is wrong. That is the sort of thing that one hopes wouldn’t make it through a GCSE exam intact, let alone form the basis for a programme of government reform.

The quota as an end in itself

So how is it that this agenda has managed to squeeze through as one of the few existing policy proposals for a next Labour government?

The answer surely lies in internal Labour politics, and the sectional interests that dominate it. A joint article by Dugher and Labour's shadow minister for women and equalities, Gloria de Piero, perhaps points the way.

Gloria de Piero
Dugher and de Piero say: When Labour left office 43% of Cabinet Office senior civil service staff were women - not enough, but we were making progress.” They add: The under-representation of senior women must be addressed and will be an issue we will work jointly on as we design our agenda for government.”

A figure of 43% women would not be a cause for concern for virtually any outsider, let alone a problem. But to Labour it is a priority, reflecting the utmost importance attached to these numbers by the women’s lobby within Labour.

This is the quota as an end in itself. It is a replication of Labour’s internal practices, in which women now have to fill 50 per cent of all internal positions down to a micro-local level. Under a Labour government, the organs of state will be used to micro-manage people in the same sorts of ways in order to create and maintain the desired image.

But the highlighting of ethnic minority and working class preferences in the news stories goes somewhat against this more common focus on women. It seems to come straight out of the dynamics and power struggles of Labour Party interest groups, in which the domination of the women’s lobby has pushed the Keith Vaz-led Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME Labour) group into the shade, and also raised concerns and resentment about the lack of ‘working class’ MPs coming through.

But, as the BAME grouping should perhaps have realised – not least from Labour’s current round of parliamentary selections – there is never enough patronage to go around, unless you want to eliminate ideas of democracy and merit altogether. The women’s lobby is much stronger and has many more internal rules working in its favour. When you introduce discrimination, people lose out – some of whom might consider themselves, or might previously have considered themselves, part of your gang. That is a trade-off you make.


This leads us on to the divisiveness of this agenda. Pitching different groups against each other and turning things like skin colour, gender and social class into meal tickets seems to represent the opposite of One Nation politics. Favouritism divides people against each other, far from uniting them.

It shows a determination not to unite the country but to divide it into different interest groups – indeed to institutionalise different groupings, to establish them as separate classes within the state apparatus. If you have some colour in your skin or fit whatever criteria of working class Labour comes up with, you will be encouraged to use this as a weapon to get ahead – and the same if you are a woman.

These sorts of policies are an example of how liberal/left-wing politics has become hollowed out through the politics of identity, largely forsaking any sense of values and moral mission. The language used for example by Dugher and de Piero suggests a sense of purpose and a vision of social transformation, but the ambitions amount to little more than the artificial fixing of statistical outcomes accompanied by self-congratulation for achieving those outcomes.

This is perhaps the final staging point of what in The Wire terminology is known as “juking the stats”: when politicians start setting statistical targets for institutions, the purpose of activity within those institutions becomes the achievement of the targets, after which all involved can congratulate themselves on their success. Meanwhile the reason for being of an institution – educating children, keeping the public safe or healthy for example – often gets lost. As the former policeman turned inner city schoolteacher Roland Pryzbylewski (below) says to a fellow teacher in The Wire: “Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.” 

Here we see Labour reverting to its bad old love of centrally-controlled and –administered targets that pay little attention to what is really going on. It is a world away from the admirable and interesting proposals from Labour to devolve power and money away from central control down to regions and local areas.

In my view (though I would like to see some evidence either way), British society has become more tolerant, accepting and integrated in racial terms largely because of the passage of time; because of people getting on with life and getting to know each other through that shared life, on their own terms; not because of positive discrimination which creates resentments and fosters low achievement. That is one reason why the recent wave of mass immigration has been problematic –it has disrupted and undermined the settling in and integration of previous migrant communities. But while our society shows concrete signs of moving on from the politics of race – not least in the million or so of us who are mixed race – Labour insists on maintaining it and maintaining separateness.

This idea of treating individual people primarily as members of abstract groupings comes out of narratives of ‘structural oppression’ and ‘privilege’ that are prominent in feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonialist political traditions. The practical policies that emerge from these narratives often border on the nonsensical, lumping the successful British Indian businessman into the same oppressed category with the poor Somali migrant, third generation black Britons, confident well-educated young women, everyone of mixed race – and from now on, those deemed to be of ‘working class’ (a problematic category to define to say the least).

As a template for modern, multiracial Britain, this makes no sense to me.

But the policy also indicates of a lack of seriousness and dearth of vision from some of the most powerful forces in the party. Too easily they revert back to fixing and controlling. This largely comes from the sectional interests which are understandably pressing for the maximum advantage for their own groups.

In this respect, Labour has a cultural problem which is only going to get worse as long as Britain integrates further, for these sectional interests are institutionalised into the party’s structural fabric and rulebook at all levels. However much modern Britons may want to break free from the determinations imposed on them by skin colour, gender and other increasingly irrelevant external identifiers, it seems that Labour will remain resolute in its determination to impose them.

1 March 2014

A speech not delivered at the Labour Special Conference on party reform

The Labour Party overwhelmingly backed reform today (1st March), and it was a pleasure and a privilege to be there with friends and colleagues. Myself, I had a little speech written to come up and deliver but was unfortunately (for me at least) not called. This is what I had to say:

Hello everyone, my name is Ben Cobley and I am from Wimbledon CLP.

It’s great to be here, and I’d like to say thank you to all the people who have been involved in preparing for this event, and for managing this process of reform.

Our thanks must go especially to Ray Collins, who has done a fantastic job with his report. I think it gives a very honest appraisal of where we are as a party and how we need to change as a party to be more engaged with people out there in the country.

The specific proposals I think are all sensible and will help involve more people in what the Labour Party does – from trade unions, but also from those who are not union members.

Being from London, the proposal for a closed primary election of Labour’s next Mayoral candidate is of particular interest. I know many members are afraid of letting non-members participate in this selection. But I say let’s welcome others joining us and participating in selecting our candidate, as long as they signing up as Labour supporters.

Politics is quite distanced from many people, and they are generally not that impressed with political parties. Let’s make it easier for them to join us and share some of the responsibility for making it better.

I want to address briefly here the way in which supporters from both unions and outside will be able to take part in a London primary and leadership elections, which is by signing up to ‘Labour values’.

Now I am wondering how many people in here know what Labour’s values are.  They are on the website but I’d be surprised if hardly anyone can remember what they are. And the people in here are among the most committed and involved in Labour Party affairs.

In other words, our values have very little meaning to us.

Look them up and you will see one reason why. One of these values is in fact ‘strong values’.  It doesn’t really tell us much.

Now I think values matter.

  •       They guide us in what we do.
  •       They show how we care.
  •       They offer a standard for us to live up to, and by which others can measure us
  •       And they need to be demonstrated to mean anything.

Especially if we are asking outsiders to sign up to our values, it’d be a good idea for us to work out what they are, and make an effort to stick by them.

So if Labour was to put together a statement of values, what might it look like?

I would suggest:

  • Fundamental Equality;  
  • Democracy;  
  • Respect for others;  
  • Freedom for people to do what they want as long as they do not harm others;  
  • Responsibility to others; 
  • Honesty and Integrity;  
  • Accountability; and   
  • Respect for all forms of life.

With so many institutions losing trust, including political parties, it is time for Labour to start winning it back. And the best way we can win it back is by making a commitment to how we are going to do things – and then sticking to that commitment.

Thank You.

My fuller thoughts on the Collins Review on Labour Party Reform - '(Almost) All Good' - are here.

26 February 2014

(Almost) All Good: thoughts on The Collins Review into Labour Party Reform

My relationship with the Labour Party isn’t a loving, happy one. I sometimes say, half-jokingly, that joining the party (or rather rejoining, in 2010) has nearly made me into a Tory.

It hasn’t, and won’t. But nevertheless it’s been true for me that while from the outside I could see that all is perhaps not well, from the inside the picture that more intelligent Tories and others paint of Labour sometimes seems painfully accurate. The centralism; the pointless, nit-picking bureaucracy; the lack of feeling for individual responsibility; the reflex instinct to control people rather than let them be free: all are largely true about Labour’s culture and organisation.

When you find yourself agreeing more with what some opponents say than what your own lot do, you’re in a bit of trouble.

Into that personal context has come The Collins Review into Labour Party Reform, a report prepared by the former Labour General Secretary (Lord) Ray Collins following consultations after the Falkirk affair (in which the union Unite recruited new members to the local constituency party in order to get one of its candidates selected, and was accused of rule-breaking).

Since I’ve been lucky enough to get selected as a constituency party delegate for the Special Conference which will decide on Collins’ recommendations (in London this Saturday, 1st March), I’ve gone and read through this 42-page document word for word. And, what’s more, I really like it...for the most part anyway.

The context: Falkirk and beyond

Collins cleverly starts off the detail of his report with a short history of the Labour Party in order to set the scene and context for these reforms.

Collins writes:

The internal party structures established at the end of the First World War proved more enduring than its architects had expected or intended. Although Labour had increased its vote and membership [the latter to a million people by 1950], the make-up and methods of constituency parties remained largely unchanged. Reports suggested that branches were often moribund and controlled by a small number of overworked enthusiasts. In some parts of the country, individuals applying for membership were told that the party was “full up”. Processes tended to be bureaucratic and based around meetings and minutes. Most members were far removed from centres of decision making. A review of Labour organisation at this time concluded that the party resembled a “penny farthing machine in the jet age”."

Needless to say, that passage could easily be written about Labour today. Indeed, in some ways it makes more sense now than then, with membership now down to less than 200,000, compared a million in 1950, 274,000 in 1982 and 400,000 when Tony Blair’s government got elected in 1997. Some political commentators talk authoritatively about the end of the political parties as membership organisations, but even with a more consumerist, less tribal public nowadays, as Collins recognises, there is nothing inevitable about decline. We just need to do better, and it is good to see us trying to do just that.

Probably the most important changes proposed concern Labour’s relationship to its affiliated trade unions like Unite, UNISON and the GMB – but these changes will have an impact across the party if passed (and it seems they will be).

Indeed, reading through the Collins report, it is clear this isn’t just a panic-driven attempt to ‘lance the boil’ of Falkirk, but a genuine, considered attempt to address long-term systemic problems within the party organisation. In a way, it is an attempt to ‘refound’ Peter Hain’s ‘Refounding Labour’ process to reinvigorate the party, but this time forced through in a ‘take it or leave it’ fashion via a Special Conference, rather than letting proposals get ground down and diluted in obscure committees.

The changes

On the crucial link between Labour and the unions, Collins has decided to distinguish between collective affiliation and individual affiliation.  He says: “Put simply, trade unionists need to be able to express one view on the financial contribution that underpins their union’s collective affiliation to the party, and another on whether they wish to be affiliated to the party individually.”

This means that union members will have to make a clear choice to pay an affiliation fee from their union to Labour. They will be offered a second choice about whether to affiliate themselves individually to Labour, which will entail involvement in party activities and voting in leadership elections, but without the full rights that come with full membership.

This will make a union’s collective affiliation to Labour much more transparent – according to the number of members who have consciously chosen to commit fees to the party rather than according to a block of people who haven’t ticked a box not to affiliate. It will also mean that Labour will have a direct relationship to trade unionists who participate in party affairs by voting in leadership elections, unlike today.

These are all good moves. With just 234,000 of 2.7 million ballot papers returned by affiliated trade unionists in 2010, and 15% of these spoilt by not affirming support for Labour values, the current relationship is clearly unsatisfactory.

Collins says: 

This reform of the leadership election process will invert the current position whereby ballots are sent to every member of an affiliated organisation before they have been asked to confirm their support for the party. In future it should operate the other way around.”

These changes will contribute to the end of Labour’s Electoral College, in which members, trade unionists and other affiliates, and MPs (and MEPs), are divided up into blocs in leadership elections. From now on it will be One Member, One Vote (OMOV), so no more multiple voting for members of multiple groupings.

Also, unlike many members, I like the closed primary for choosing Labour’s London Mayoral candidates, in which any member of the public can sign up to ‘Labour values’ (of which more later) and get an equal vote along with party members and affiliated members. Letting the public participate in party processes is a good way of building up affiliation and a feeling of commitment from non-members. Labour needs to open up and respond better to people rather than just address them as voters who need to be secured, but who otherwise need to be kept at an arm’s length.

The section on Fair and Transparent Selections is a mixed one though. On one hand there will be welcome moves to create ‘a more level playing field’ for candidates with lesser resources (for example, no union backing). There will also be a clearer code of conduct for candidates that can be more easily enforced. This goes a little way to what I proposed in my short submission to the Collins consultation, though in my view it is party officials as much as candidates that need to be signing codes of conduct – those that run processes as well as those running in them.

But on the other hand, while the rest of Collins’ report is devoted to opening the Labour Party up, this section bears witness to the enduring popularity of central control and micro-management, and also the liberal-lefty love of identity politics. This gets manifested through a specific version of ‘representation’ in which women get represented by women, black and brown people get represented by black and brown people, gay people get represented by gay people, etc.

The Collins Review says: “There is much more to do in terms of making the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] more socially representative, but in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexuality there are solid moves to increase proportions.” This is for me the worst aspect of Labour Party culture and practice: the idea that good representation comes not from free and equal people voting for whoever they want, but from abstractions that have nothing to do with someone’s political beliefs and what Martin Luther King called “the content of their character”.

Maajid Nawaz, the former Islamist, now Liberal Democrat candidate and staunch critic of the ‘regressive left’, has written for example of “ethnic communalism, where only a brown person is assumed able to represent brown people and so on”. He sees this as a form of ‘Orientalism’, whereby different groups require ‘native-chiefs’ to speak on their behalf.

This is a sort of representation – very different to democratic representation – that the Labour Party embraces. Its most obvious example is the All Women’s Shortlist for parliamentary representation, but quotas for women’s representation are universal at all levels of the party, alongside some limited positive discrimination for non-white people, gay people and others. Nowadays, even micro-local branches have to have a minimum of 50 per cent women in their executives and delegations.

This is command and control, not democracy. Going down this route I think in 50 years time we may have finally managed to be perfectly ‘representative’, but representing nobody. It is the sort of thing which makes me think I really do not belong in this party - in contrast to the rest of the report.

This brings us on to values. There is a lot of talk in the Collins report of affiliated and registered supporters signing up to ‘Labour values’, something I have addressed before, in a plea for privileging ethics/behaviour rather than vague platitudes. Look up what Labour’s values are on the party website and you will find this:

“The values Labour stands for today are those which have guided it throughout its existence.

• social justice
• strong community and strong values
• reward for hard work
• decency
• rights matched by responsibilities”.

As you will see, one of our ‘values’ is ‘strong values’.

Another is ‘social justice’, which doesn’t mean anything in and of itself, but I assume refers to a sort of state of justice in society in which everything is as it should be. This is where Labour’s obsession with statistical targets and quotas normally ends up, but according to your political view, it could mean anything from a bit of redistribution to a full-on totalitarian state. ‘Decency’ is something that we can all understand (being nice to each other), but when compared to the opposite, ‘indecency’, doesn’t really tell us much.

These values also they don’t really commit us to that much. That may be helpful in not deterring potential members and supporters, but values do matter. They create a commitment, and set a standard by which we ourselves and others can judge what we do. In the dull and denuded politics of today (something of which Labour is definitely guilty), this would be no bad thing. 

Perhaps the most important criticism of the Collins Report however is what it misses out. Most prominent here is Labour's day-to-day ruling body the National Executive Committee (NEC), which the unions have a dominant place on and which engages in all the micro-management in the party. This will remain unchanged.

That is a shame. But when it comes to reform, you've got to start somewhere, and these reforms are as decent a start as could be expected.